Best New Stuff – July 2018

 

 

GLOW Season 2

I always liked GLOW; I found it winning, and complicated in ways that most shows don’t let their women characters be. But its first season had some issues that I wouldn’t begrudge people for disliking — it had a diverse ensemble, but didn’t care to use much of it, for starters.

But season 2 — man, season 2 blew me away. What an exquisite way to expand on the concept of the first season, present two separate and totally fair conceptions of a coming out story, building and broadening the friendship at the core of it, expertly placing clues and pacing itself for the end of the season. This is a show to watch, more subversive in its portrayal of female life than something like The Handmaid’s Tale. Plus it’s got a truly kickin’ soundtrack.

Hereditary

I am not the sort of person who ascribes to the philosophy that a horror movie has to be scary, but if I was Hereditary would still hit the mark. The first 3/4 play out like an atmospheric stretching rack, until the final act really drives it home. It’s the sort of movie that’s impossible to market without audiences being familiar with it, even though it isn’t all that unfamiliar from horror movie touchstones. It’s just that the ambience is so enveloping, the execution so wholly authentic, it’s impossible to get the message across until the movie’s been seen.

But after you’ve seen it? Well, the dark of your bedroom will never be the same again.

God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty 

While last month (and a little of this month) is still dominated by Everything Is Love, I somehow missed the release of the latest FJM. Where before I had been kind of hot and cold on the folk star, I’m now enrapt by his crooning, which seems to covers everything from love songs to comedy pieces.

 

 

but the Youtube song of the month?  That’s Isakov all the way, baby. 

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Best New Stuff – March 2018

In like a lion, out like a lamb.

While the first part of this month had a lot of senior editing for me over at Bright Wall/Dark Room, and producing at SeattlePI, the second half — well, it was more of the same. But I somehow carved out more time for some viewings on the side. Here’s what was the best of the docket:

3 Women

Initially picked up for an essay forthcoming at BWDR that I was editing, this Robert Altman classic has a sort of haunting, dreamlike (in the truest sense of the word) feel to it that will stick with you long after that final shot of the tires in the desert has left the screen. It’s ineffable and aloof, and yet somehow eerily familiar and reminiscent. Avant garde identity theft/personality melding in the 1970s with Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall. What’s to go wrong?

The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein’

The best kind of analytical essay is the kind that makes you want to immediately pick up the thing being dissected and revel in all of it. That’s exactly what this New Yorker piece by Jill Lepore does, weaving biographical details of Mary Shelley with historical meaning with quick hits of studied analysis. It makes me want to have a (preferably old and fragrant) copy of “Frankenstein” right in my hands, and to read the book and the essay all in one sitting.

Annihilation

Last week talkies, this week raw eBook (just kidding, it’s a regular book): After watching the movie, my boyfriend and I have taken to reading the book and — though there’s still more book to read, thank god — I’m confident to say that this is one of the better new reads I’ve done this month. It’s completely enthralling and diligently crafted to build and build and build, in a way that always leaves you wanting more no matter where you stop. Plus it’s a completely different taste than the movie (think man vs. man rather than man vs. nature) which means I have no idea where we’re going to end up.

Hold Up, They Don’t Love You Like I Love You

I mentioned before that great analytical essays make you want to immediately rush to the thing being dissected, but there’s other forms of great too (normally people who are better writers, or who write with more time spread these things out, but it’s my blog so enjoy the cracks, readers!). And perhaps no one is as good at the “Utterly catching you off guard with a funny, lighthearted tone and so intricately blurring the line between analysis and recounting that you’re not even sure how to pick it apart” than Fran. Her latest essay at BWDR is a masterclass, covering so many different things and handling it all with aplomb. Now how do I watch Ocean’s Eleven?

One Day at a Time

Norman Lear is still there, but the game has changed — and thank god it has. This (still unrenewed!!) Netflix sitcom follows a Cuban-American family through the ups and downs, comings outs and and coming ons, day-in and day-out of their lives and reader, it stunned me. I really didn’t think I could still do the tried and true sitcom formula, but One Day at Time knows when to keep the jokes down and focus on the heart. And though it often veers into Full House-esque, after-schools-special monologues, it’s masterful and empathetic in the way it tackles its subjects. Watch it now on Netflix, or just leave it streaming in the background so Netflix registers viewers and renews it already; I’m not your mom.

**since I wrote this review ODaaT got renewed! We did it America! #Blessed

Schitt’s Creek

This show — despite being recommended by so many people I love and respect — took me a while to get into, but thank god I did. “Girl’s Night,” in particular, bowled me over in the way it gracefully unfurled its true wingspan, swinging so simply from “wacky hijink” scenario to “grounded, interpersonal connections that make you want to reach out and stroke the screen.”

Honorable mentions:

Jane the Virgin (everything I need, and will probably be coming during its finale in April)

A Fantastic Woman

The H Spot

Youtube vid of the month:

Bonus: 

 

Commodified Feminism Is Gonna Kill Us

I mean think about it for a second.

How else do we get fragrance creators telling us what female empowerment smells like? Or articles telling us that Stranger Things is “not the feminist show of our dreams?” No duh; that’s why it’s of our dreams. And that’s all before we get into how the article slights teenage girls for making irrational decisions about dating and moms for grieving their missing kids, all the while slamming those teens for wearing makeup and yelling at the moms (cash-strapped and frantic as they are) for not.

st_107-108_unit_0754_r_cropThese are the sort of ghosts of philosophies that
are haunting modern feminism discourse. There is something to be said for the fact that narratives frequently dismiss women who don’t fit a standard (attractive) archetype, or how a character who undergoes abuse is doing so because the creator framed it that way. But there’s a difference between Game of Thrones‘ quick trigger on putting any and every woman through sexual assault, and showing that sometimes teens—even teens who have sex on the regular—can be assholes about people having sex.

To flatten all feminist concepts into basic buzzwords—”slut-shaming,” “looking pretty,” “love-triangles”—ignores not just what feels fresh about shows like Stranger Things who feature an array of female characters, but tramples all over the progress that got us here. In another world Stranger Things would’ve been just about the men in Will’s orbit, finding Will by kicking ass. In Stranger Things, it’s about a community.

Shows aren’t perfect; lord knows Stranger Things wasn’t. Ideologies aren’t perfect. Neither are the people that hold them. But holding things you love to dichotomous standards of “feminist” or “not feminist” is a sure fire way to ruin things you love and feminism.

Network TV vs. New Streaming: Outnumbered, Outplanned

As Thanksgiving creeps up, fall tv seasons are starting to wind down, ready to go big and then go home until it’s time to roll back out during January. It seems like just yesterday we were welcoming them back to our tv screens and our hearts. And that’s because for some new tv shows, we were—they just weren’t all on cable.

As you may have heard, we’re living through a Golden Era (or some facsimile) of Scripted Television. It’s why it feels like it’s so hard to get your friends watching all the shows you do; there are more than 400 original, scripted tv shows this year (And once you factor in reality shows, that number is a lot closer 1,000). It amounts to about a 683 percent growth since the turn of the century. What’s resulted is an immense change in how we watch TV, and streaming sites are looking ahead to what that means.

See, over the next month network TV will start winding their shows down. “Fall finales,” as they’re known, were meant to give audiences a break for the holidays—and also prevent ratings drops anyone from missing their favorite programs. And now, that’s exactly when streaming sites will strike.

1410383738000-Fotor0908181720Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, already providing the platforms for people to catch up on programs they missed, have been creating their own in-house content for years. But it was only in the last few years that they attracted a massive audience. And they’ve done it by striking when the iron is hot, and the cable content is cool.

That means releasing content in the off-seasons—summer, late Fall—and bringing in viewers when there’s “nothing else to watch.” Years ago that would’ve struck people as crazy, but with the ubiquity of the Internet, streaming TV and movies has become a 24-hour activity. And though network tv is slow to change, streaming sites have understood all too well the habits of the average consumer (it helps that they have all that data from years of providing the service).

The format is a major boost to the platforms. They are already the place people go when they’re looking for something to watch that’s not on TV. Shifting in some original content in its entirety for people to binge to their heart’s content is just taking advantage of that inside track. That understanding of people’s desire to have quality content available at their fingertips is what makes it so that providers like Netflix can release shows entirely on Fridays—something unheard of for traditional TV networks, who still see Friday as a ratings graveyard.

FX Networks Chief John Landgraf has credited a lot of this to the audience fragmentation that’s been a fact of life programmers have been battling for decades. And that very well may be true; the Internet alone is a major fragmenter in a lot of ways. But between now and the end of the year, Netflix alone is averaging a new release a week, while networks will be winding their content down. Making it seem that while everyone knows they can’t have it all, some are taking the Washington approach: Outrun, outlast; hit ’em quick, get out fast.

TfdaI64

Winner of the summer TV season: ‘Bojack Horseman’ Season 2

A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that one of the most realistic character shows on TV would be a show about an anthropomorphic horse. But then “Bojack Horseman” galloped onto the scene.

“BoJack Horseman” is the latest in a growing number of shows whose cynicism masks a deeper intelligence, both in its humor and its emotion. Season one took a while to find its feet, but season two suffers no such tepid period. Gone are the times when they leaned on jokes that were too easy and ended up with hit-or-miss comedy. This season is straight out of the gate.
From the very beginning of first episode, the sophomore season establishes that it is just as fast with the punchline as it is with the gut-punch. The trick is that it doesn’t favor either side of its balancing act. “BoJack Horseman” is both an irreverent comedy with animals that act like humans and hilarious sight gags, while also being a grounded and biting character study of life as a Hollywoo(d) has-been.

When we left BoJack (Will Arnett) he was at a bit of a crossroad in his life: After what little public persona he had being blown up by Diane’s (Alison Brie) tell-all, he was never more lonely, and never more popular—having landed his dream role of Secretariat. Season two’s opener, “Brand New Couch,” picks up right from mess of emotions as BoJack tries to move on and up with his life and career.

Similar to season one, the description of basic events often seems run-of-the-LA-mill. And admittedly none of the themes of season one or two—fame, relationships, success, and the prices we pay for all of it—are fresh on their own. But the magic of “BoJack Horseman” has always been that it’s grounded those themes intensely with their characters, resulting in comedy and drama that consistently feels smart, even when it’s making a dirty joke.

Season two takes all those characters and raises them to the next level. That means it doesn’t skimp on secondary characters, like Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd, who are given expanded roles carving out a slice of Hollywoo(d)’s notoriety.

"After the Party" plays with storytelling techniques, and wonders why Mr. Peanutbutter keeps going back to the same printer.
“After the Party” plays with storytelling techniques, and wonders why Mr. Peanutbutter keeps going back to the same printer.

Overall, season two starts to feel a bit more like an ensemble; closer to “Mad Men” in tone and character focus. “After the Party,” the fourth episode of the new season, jumps from dynamic to dynamic, volleying between eccentric humor and raw emotion without so much a yellow light.

And just like Don Draper, though “BoJack Horseman” leans on more than its title character doesn’t mean it’s not willing to plumb the depths of his darkness. By the end of the season we’ve seen BoJack reach new levels of shame, and it’s not always easy to watch. Or rather, it wouldn’t be, if this show weren’t so damn engrossing.

But for the world of “BoJack,” the worlds of comedy and drama aren’t separate genres at all. Instead they’re closely related, allowing even wacky humor to float closer to real life than it really deserves to (this season does, sort of, answer the question of “in a world with anthropomorphic animals why do they eat meat?” Just in case you’ve been dying to know). It leaves viewers with the feeling that the show is always one punchline ahead of you. And thanks to the outstanding voice acting, even when the path of the joke feels obvious it feels brilliant.
And for a cast that was already bursting at the seams with comedic talent, season two turns it up to eleven; with Lisa Kudrow, Tatiana Maslany, Aisha Tyler, and more joining the ranks—with some surprise guests sprinkled along the way.

Not all the rough edges have been sanded down. “BoJack” has always taken an Adult Swim-esque humor, where if you’re not in on the joke you can move along. And with the most commitment to a laugh-a-minute in-jokes since at least “Arrested Development,” it’s likely that a lot of that could fly by the casual viewer’s head. It’s unlikely that anyone who didn’t find themselves enamored with BoJack and his band of merry misery by the end of the first season will start appreciating it more with season two. The sophomore season doubles down on the world it’s built, and adds in a healthy helping of high ambitions.

hqdefault-2By the end of the season the nuance and realism have ballooned, in the best way, to a snowball that’s only picking up more and more speed. It’s a bit crowded by the time “BoJack” crosses the finish line, but never completely out of whack, and with a third season officially on its way there’s a whole new dozen episodes to spurt out everything that’s left over.

Intelligent, absurd, and dark, in equal measure, “BoJack Horseman” season two keeps the fun rolling all the way until the knife is at its hilt, and then twists. And then it answers that question you had about whether or not the universe had a separate Emmy category anthropomorphic animal actors.

Black’n’Orange: Season 3 Episode 6

Catching up? Check the tag. 

My first thoughts on this episode is that it left me a little numb.

In a way that only OITNB (and possibly a handful of other shows) can, “Ching Chong Chang” was that bizarre mix of everything I wanted and nothing at all. The flashback seemed like a good way to fold in a backstory with a weekly theme, while also being a far too convenient story—that I fear will ultimately be dropped.

960As we follow Chang around the prison, we’re treated to a look at her life before she arrived at Litchfield: the unwanted, “unattractive” sister who rose to power in a smuggling ring (I might’ve missed it, but I don’t think they ever actually said what position she held in the end?). It’s an interesting backstory, certainly colorful given the only intermittent flashes we’ve seen from Chang so far. It’s nice because it doesn’t seem to seek to explain much of Chang at any point; our view of her pre-prison life shows her trying to forget about the “ugly duckling” label she’s carried, but much of her activity in prison is purely observational. She makes Frito/pea balls in the microwave; she saves oranges; she reins herself in during an improv exercise.

All that is wrapped up tightly with an episodic discussion of what it means to be a woman, and perform feminity as a woman: Chang’s broken betrothal, the lingerie magazine (and all the intersectional privilege that comes with it), Marello’s creepy prison pen pal scheme. It’s as if OITNB is running through a list of boxes that allows it to facilitate a lot of important dialogue, but it also all feels a bit too neat.

Red hits it on the head when she’s confronting Healy, who’s still sour about her using him to get back in the kitchen. “I take advantage you get your feelings hurt. You forget that when I leave here, you lock me in behind you,” she spits at him. “You leave her with one coin—it’s tawdry and demeaning, but if she has to, she will spend it.”

The episode does a lot to advance several plots, actually. Red is (triumphantly) back in the kitchen. Piper has a new flame friend. The prison’s privatization is starting to grind gears a bit. Poussey is longing for love in her life. But amidst the episode trying to do all that while also make compelling points about feminism (and, on the mid-back burner/not yet front-burner, the privatized prison complex) it left nothing with a lot of breathing room. They’re all there, and it’s arguably not even done poorly. But it’s so crowded that it’s hard to make out any nuance through the haze.

Stray Shots: 

  • Red velvet isn’t a thing. You heard it here folks.
  • “God bless free market America of the United States” listening to Pennsatucky’s whole “viva la privatized prison” speech really through me for a loop. Strange to see how the other side (in this case southerners? Conservatives? People who are 100 percent behind this sort of thing?) lives. Also interested to see if Pennsatucky’s arc of acceptance continues through—what I’m predicting is—a rocky transition to the prison’s new owners.
  • “All right, this is still prison, alright?”
  • Cream in Carbonara sauce = vulgar. This week was filled with hot food takes.
  • “We got the haircuts.”

 

 

The Uncomfortable Whiteness of “Kimmy Schmidt”

Like everyone else in the known-universe with a Netflix subscription I started (and finished all too quickly) watching “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” this weekend. And it is marvelous.

It’s got the same sort of quirky, sharp humor that the later seasons of “30 Rock” had (no surprise since it’s helmed mostly by the same crew), but it’s also able to break out of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and out into the real world. Tina Fey, you’ve done it again.

An example of the butt of the joke being the institution, not the person
An example of the butt of the joke being the institution, not the person

Which is a little what I’m worried about when it comes to the race jokes. As far as my (limited) understanding of Fey’s past writers rooms, she’s smart enough to hire a diverse writing staff, and that often shows in her comedy. The problem is, not all her actors match. In fact, like almost any other show on TV, “Kimmy Schmidt” is overwhelmingly white. And while for the most part the jokes land on the right people (even Kimmy and her fellow Mole Women former cult members are never the butt of the joke for their ignorance), there’s only so much you can do when most of your cast is as white as Empire Mayonnaise.

wolf6tvf-1-webTitus’ experiences being treated better in New York as a werewolf than a black man make for good satire because they come from him; they punch up, so to speak. But Jacqueline’s “twist” as a Native American who’s worked very hard to pass as a white woman seems dicey at best as she’s played by white woman. I’ve read that these decisions came from some Native American writers in the writers room, but given that the audience is only seeing them come from the mouth of a white woman, it could potentially do more harm than good.

Clearly, my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt, as I myself write from the place of whiteness. I also wouldn’t qualify myself as an astute enough study on the first round of viewings to decide where each and every joke makes its mark. But I think that if “Kimmy Schmidt” really wants to land this plan, it might want to look back to what its Grandmentor Jack Donaghy once said:

This was the biggest waste of time since NBC’s Diversity Writing program. That was a good idea but all our actors are so white.

Put your money where your mouth is, “Kimmy Schmidt.” By your powers and Netflix combined who knows what you could achieve.

Nothing but Netflix

I do love me a good media brawl, and thanks to CBS I’ve got one.

Essentially what happened is that CBS, home to your favorite laugh tracks like “2 Broke Girls” and “The Big Bang Theory,” was one of the many companies in attendance at the UBS Global Media Conference last month. And one CBS exec named David Poltrack took a swing at Netflix, saying that while the streaming/DVD service was becoming a player, it was far from the champion at picking winners.

However, he said, “it has been more than one year since Netflix introduced a true new hit program.”…

Netflix’s “batting average is below that of the pay cable networks as well as the broadcast networks,” Poltrack said.

He added, “They do not appear to have found any magic formula for success in that game.”

CNN story on the matter

Now sure, Poltrack has some points: not all of the shows have been winners, or even goldmines like OITNB or “House of Cards.” “Bojack Horseman,” despite its stellar cast and overall quality got off on the wrong hoof, and hasn’t garnered the same buzz other Netflix shows have.

But doesn’t it just seem petty to pick a fight with a network (for lack of a better term) that’s also hosting your own content? Poltrack goes on to acknowledge the “frenemy” nature of Netflix, but I think he would do well to remember that Netflix–competition or no–is doing plenty of things right.

CBS wtf?
CBS wtf?

For instance, they’re breaking down barriers. “Orange is the New Black” is the most diverse show out there, arguably, and has kicked in a lot of doors, including for Laverne Cox and a wider discussion of LGBTQ and racial issues. “House of Cards” received a whopping 13 primetime Emmy nods for its second season, and lead actress Robin Wright became the first to pick up a Golden Globe (or any major award for that matter) for an online-only television series. Meanwhile CBS is gaining notoriety amongst the online community for its nonstop attempts to pander to the lowest common denominator with its humor and politics.

For a streaming service who only recently crashed on the scene to be making such influential original content? I think Netflix is doing alright. Not to mention that Netflix has produced a number of miniseries, films, and comedy specials with high-profile comedians. And viewers are eating it up: Netflix originals accounted for 1.1 billion of the hours of programs watched on the site. To me, they’re only just getting started.

Because perhaps one of the most important fights Netflix is promoting is the use of windowing, which is when major studios release content in a specific way (Movies then at-home devices, USA then other countries, for example) in order to boost sales and revenue. It’s a holdover from when you couldn’t simply pirate or stream anything you wanted with the Internet, but it often leaves Netflix in a bind (and accounts for why U.S. Netflix is so much more flush than the 49 other libraries they have). When Netflix releases their content it’s everywhere, all the time. When CBS releases their content it’s…well, if I even want to watch it I’ll let you know.

The fact of the matter is, Netflix is more than the sum of its buzz–and not only because they provide consumers with content from all sorts of places. It might behoove CBS and its executives to remember that. And that Netflix has already seen to one titan’s fall.

blockbuster_closing